WASHINGTON – The Bush administration overreached when it sought to limit the Navy’s obligations under national environmental laws related to sonar training exercises off California, a federal judge ruled Monday.
In a sharply worded decision that will keep the Navy from continuing a series of 14 planned exercises, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper wrote that the Navy and the administration had improperly declared that an emergency would be created if they had to accept court-mandated steps to minimize risk to whales and other sea mammals. Because no real emergency exists, she said, the White House cannot override her decisions and those of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Accepting the Navy’s arguments, she wrote, would produce “the absurd result of permitting agencies to avoid their (environmental) obligations by re-characterizing ordinary, planned activities as ‘emergencies’ in the interest of national security, economic stability or other long-term goals.”
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, “We disagree with the judge’s decision. We believe the orders are legal and appropriate.”
A Navy spokeswoman, Lt. Cmdr. Cindy Moore, said the military was studying the decision.
Joel Reynolds, an official at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which obtained an earlier injunction against the Navy blocking the exercises, said in a statement that the court “has affirmed that we do not live under an imperial presidency.”
“The Navy doesn’t need to harm whales to train effectively with sonar,” said Reynolds, who directs the council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project.
Early last month, President Bush signed a waiver exempting the Navy from provisions of the Coastal Zone Management Act after Cooper and the appeals court had concluded that the law required the Navy to do more to protect marine mammals during the sonar exercises. The loud blasts produced during sonar exercises have been shown to disorient some types of whales, leading in some circumstances to strandings and deaths.
At the same time Bush signed his order, the White House Council on Environmental Quality determined that the Navy did not need to follow the procedures of the National Environmental Policy Act when doing so would cause an emergency situation. The Navy has long argued that it urgently needs to train more sonar operators because of new threats from “quiet” diesel submarines that can approach ships or the U.S. coast without being detected by traditional passive sonar.